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Hopkins
Retrospective
1876-Today

Portrait of Johns Hopkins

Reexamining Hopkins History

As America’s first research university, Johns Hopkins is committed to the pursuit of knowledge and to using the tools of academic research to understand and examine our own past. Under the auspices of Hopkins Retrospective and through our libraries and museums, Johns Hopkins University has undertaken several efforts to do so to date.

Through this initiative, we seek to explore and publicly present archival evidence related to Johns Hopkins University and the legacy of slavery. 

We are fully committed to continuing this research wherever it may lead and to illuminating a path that we hope will bring us closer to the truth, which is an indispensable foundation for all of our education, research and service activities.
Ronald J. Daniels
President, Johns Hopkins University
Paul Rothman
Dean of the Medical Faculty & CEO, Johns Hopkins Medicine
Kevin Sowers
President of the Johns Hopkins Health System & EVP, Johns Hopkins Medicine

A careful look at the history of our founder, Johns Hopkins, and his family

In a message on December 9, 2020, Johns Hopkins University and Medicine leadership shared with the Hopkins community  our archival discovery of government census records that state Mr. Hopkins was the owner of enslaved people in 1840 and 1850, and perhaps earlier. By 1860, there are no enslaved persons listed in his home.

The archival record we are piecing together indicates that Johns Hopkins was a complex person. A businessman and philanthropist whose bequest transformed higher education and accessible healthcare in America, a slaveholder who operated in a society that relied heavily on the institution of slavery, and a man reported at his death to have held anti-slavery views.

Historians have discovered few documents written by Johns Hopkins, and no historian has written a comprehensive biography of him. As far as we know, his personal papers were destroyed prior to his death or perhaps surviving records were lost. For many years, our institutions have invoked a narrative we now know to be erroneous that tells the story of Johns’ Quaker parents manumitting their enslaved individuals, but we did not previously scrutinize that account, nor did we fully investigate the subsequent history of the man or his family members. We are now taking a careful look at the widely accepted narrative of Johns Hopkins, a book of remembrances written by his grand-niece, Helen Thom, and we are beginning a journey of further research and understanding.

We will continue to pursue our research into his life in order to arrive at a more complete and truthful picture.

Johns Hopkins Biographical Archive

We are actively building a growing collection of documentary evidence about the life of our founder, Johns Hopkins and his family, and their relationship with the institution of slavery.

Expore the archive

Hard Histories at Hopkins

Professor Martha S. Jones is leading a scholarly initiative to understand and acknowledge our institution’s past history of discrimination on a number of different grounds, focused first and foremost on race.

Join the discussion
Read preliminary findings about Johns Hopkins and slaveholding

The Work Ahead

Get involved

  • We are at the beginning of learning more about Johns Hopkins’ life as we develop a deeper, more extensive archival record. We hope that others – our students, faculty, and staff as well as our neighbors in Baltimore – will help contribute to this work of gathering and sharing documents and interpreting them. Please reach out if you know of relevant archival collections, and send your comments and suggestions to HopRetroReexaminingHistory@jhu.edu.

Hopkins history advisory committee

  • Professor Martha S. Jones will lead a group of senior colleagues—including Sheridan Libraries Dean Winston Tabb, incoming KSAS Dean Chris Celenza, and Director of the Institute of the History of Medicine Jeremy Greene—to propose a set of initiatives that explore the historical connections to slavery of Johns Hopkins, the Hopkins family, and other important figures associated with our institution’s founding. This multi-year project, closely linked to the Hopkins Retrospective, will encompass a broad range of scholarly activities and opportunities for direct participation and engagement, such as lectures and forums, academic courses, community conversations, commemorative events, and public art.

Town Hall

Universities Studying Slavery

  • Johns Hopkins University joined the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) consortium in 2020 to collaborate with and learn from peer institutions.

Frequently asked questions


Related research

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Johns Hopkins Hospital Colored Orphan Asylum (1875-1924)

Homewood Museum

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

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